WHAT TO SAY TO A FRIEND HAVING AN AFFAIR
It’s not a moment that most of us plan for. It’s not as if we sit around wondering aloud, “Geez, I should really think about what to say if a friend or family member has an affair?” No, most of us would rather live in a fantasy world believing that we won’t come face-to-face with such a gut-wrenching reality.
The truth is…you probably will have that experience at some point in your life. Someone (whether it’s a co-worker, parent, child, pastor, or best friend) may choose to start an emotional or physical relationship with someone other than the partner they’ve committed to loving. When that happens, how will you respond? What will you say?
Based on my own experience (through my own affair and by walking with quite a few others over the last two years), let me give you a few options that don’t work too well…
- How could you do such a thing? (The reality is that it’s much more complicated than you could imagine.)
- You’re going to screw up your kids for the rest of their lives. (Believe me when I tell you that they probably don’t care in the moment.)
- God doesn’t approve of this, and you’ll pay the price for your actions. (I’m not sure I’ve met anyone who thinks God likes affairs.)
- I won’t have anything to do with you until you get your life together. (Being associated with someone doesn’t mean you approve of their actions.)
- You are ruining any chance of ______________. (Whatever it is that they’re throwing away by having an affair doesn’t matter in the midst of the delusion they’re operating within.)
I hear of quite a few well-meaning friends and family who think they can talk some sense into their loved one, but I just haven’t seen it work. I’m not insinuating that you shouldn’t help someone see the ramifications of their infidelity, but most people need to feel the intense pain of a rock bottom experience in order to be jolted out of the powerful grip of an affair.
In the midst of an emotional or physical affair, there are so many chemicals pulsing through the body, and one primary message is being fed into the brain. “THIS PERSON IS GOING TO MAKE MY LIFE COMPLETE. HE/SHE WILL TAKE AWAY ALL MY WORRIES.”
In light of this powerful message, there are several key messages I communicate to someone in the midst of an affair (or trying to break free from one)…
- Help me understand what you’re feeling. While many are quick to assume what’s going on in their life, your friend or family member longs for someone to understand. Most people are hungry for someone who is trustworthy to ask open-ended questions and simply listen. Offering passionate advice or correction will likely push them away. Holding your tongue and seeking to understand can be an incredible gift of grace to someone in the midst of an affair.
- I’ll walk with you. It can be incredibly difficult to be a non-anxious presence in the midst of a challenging season of life, but it is healing to those in need. For religious folks, there is often an assumption that ‘my presence communicates my approval.’ Not true. You can be with someone and not feel the need to continually remind them what you stand for. If you’re walking with someone along the way, you’ll have the opportunity (and privilege) of scraping them off the asphalt when they crash and burn. Walking with someone means calling, connecting, and asking how they’re doing. It also involves not feeling the need to bring something intense up every time you talk.
- I would encourage you to go to therapy. If your friend is caught up in an affair, they are missing something in their own life and the initial relationship has gone sideways at some point. They need professional help to wrestle with what they’re truly searching for in the affair. Ironically, they have a very positive intention by getting involved in another relationship. They’re probably longing for a passionate, intimate relationship, but they’re inappropriately directing that intention. A therapist can help them process this and hopefully help them re-direct their positive intention toward their spouse. By helping them find a good therapist in their area, you’re giving them an onramp to health.
- I’m sure you’ve thought through the consequences. They probably haven’t. Well, maybe they’ve thought of a few things, but they definitely haven’t thought through (or experienced) them all. By acting as though they’ve processed the painful consequences, you’re giving them the benefit of the doubt, and you’re empowering them to think about them in a fresh way. Use it as a way to ask more clarifying questions. “How will this impact your spouse when he/she finds out? Are you thinking about a divorce? How will your kids take the news? Have you been looking for an apartment and furnishings? What about the other person’s spouse?” There is a never-ending trail of painful questions that have the possibility of either unraveling the person’s heart or simply pushing them away. It’s your call. Most of the the time, it pushes them away.
Once again, I haven’t seen anyone who has been able to get out of an affair without hitting a significantly painful rock bottom experience. There’s something about the allure of “this person could be my soulmate” that doesn’t go away until you’ve felt the pain. That unbearable pain seems to have an incredible way of opening one’s eyes to the beauty of fidelity and the loving work that’s required to have an intimate marriage.